To mark the start of Dying Matters Awareness Week, Simon Fuller, Chief Executive of Birmingham St Mary’s and John Taylor Hospices reflects on his father’s death and what he learned first-hand from the experience: the importance of being with him when he died, the healing power of a family funeral where everyone can play a part and why quietly listening to someone who is grieving is probably the best help you can give.
My father died on the 30th of January, just four weeks after I’d started as joint chief executive of the Hospices. I wouldn’t say I was prepared for him dying. I don’t think you can ever really prepare yourself. It’s something you know is coming and although you try and ready yourself, it still really hurts.
Everybody loved my dad. He was a really friendly guy who loved people and parties. The ideal person to go for a night out with. His teenage years were during the 60s so he definitely developed a bit of wild side. He was a total charmer with an eye for the ladies, and was on his third marriage by the time he died.
Being in a good place to die
I knew that I wanted my father to die with his family around him. This hadn’t been the case with my mom, who died in hospital and I wasn’t able to be with her when she passed. I was determined that dad was going to die in a good place: relaxed, pain free and with us there.
Fortunately, I managed to get dad into St Giles Hospice. My aunt was there with me which was really nice as I don’t have any siblings. Dad wasn’t conscious towards the end so we sat for a couple of hours, holding his hand, telling stories of the things we had done together and smiling about some of his funny misdemeanours. We played some of the music he liked until he peacefully passed.
Just the right kind of support at the hospice
I had great support from the hospice, they struck the balance between being supportive and reassuring without being over-bearing. It was important to feel that professionals were on hand when you needed them. The Hospice contacted me shortly after to see if I needed any support or bereavement counselling.
There’s a lot of work to do to educate people that Hospices aren’t just for people who have incurable cancer, that they can support people with different life-limiting conditions, not just in the last few days of someone’s life but in the last 12 months. The medical team at our local hospital were reluctant to discharge my father to St Giles, I suppose they didn’t see the need. The hospital palliative team, however, did everything they could to get him discharged.
Dad was a big part of my family’s life, they loved him dearly. I forewarned them that he was really ill and going to die but they could also see it themselves. In many ways we are not a typical family as I’ve worked around cancer and dying for many years, I’ve always tried to be open about death and dying with my teenage daughters to take away some of the mystery and fear of the subject.
I talked to my dad about his wishes for end of life, several years before as he knew his lifestyle would prevent him living to an older age. He wanted his wake to be a big party but Covid sadly put a stop to that. He didn’t want a religious funeral and had taken out a funeral plan to cover the cost which was helpful. He said he wanted his ashes to be sent up in a firework, we used to joke that NASA would have to get that firework in the air – he was a big guy!
I really wish I’d discussed dad doing a will; he didn’t have much money but it meant sorting some aspects of his estate have dragged on at a time when my stepmother is managing her own life-limiting illness and didn’t need the added pressure.
Sharing the funeral arrangements
I think it’s important to share the grieving process and not hold on to it too tightly yourself. Planning the funeral, I found it really helpful to involve family members and give them responsibility for different aspects. It allowed people to feel involved and play their part, while giving me time to grieve and support my family. My wife made goodies bags for everyone with mini-bottles of wine and cake. We had these at the online wake which my aunt organised, and it was lovely to be together to share stories and remember my dad.
I hope that a few more people can find the strength to start a small conversation with a friend or family member about what dying means to them and how they’re planning for it. There’s no perfect way to do it, no scripts, sometimes taking a deep breath, picking your moment and giving it a go is enough to get the conversation going.
Losing someone close is one of the most difficult life experiences a person can experience. When my mom became really ill when I was 20 I should have sought professional support, I believe my healing would have been much quicker. So, if you know someone who may need a bit of encouragement to get some help, don’t be afraid to suggest that they see a professional. Failing that, sit down and ask them how they really are. Say nothing else and just wait for a response. Listening may be the best thing you can do.
Thank you, Simon, for sharing your story. You can find out about more about our bereavement support services here.